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September 2011

Evil Rising

cast: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, Viktor Klimenko, Rain Tolk, and Kari Ketonen

director: Antti-Jussi Annila

80 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Fusion Media DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Paul Higson

Evil Rising

This is set in 1595, in settling boundaries at the end of a 25-year war. A royal border commission, comprising of representatives of the Emperor of Russia and the King of Sweden, are mapping out the territories to the north of their respective countries. The cartographer is Knut Spore (Tommi Eronen), who, as a result of his age and education, has missed out on active participation in the fighting, and it is his hope that his beautiful maps with the inclusion of an uncharted swamp will culminate in a place at the University of Stockholm as a teacher of geography.

His brother, on the other hand, also on the mission, is cavalry master Errik Spore (Ville Virtanen), who entered the war at 16 and, now 41, self-regards himself an old man and is branded worse than that by the accompanying senior Russian officer, Semensky. Provoked and defending his men from the cavalry master's taunts, Semensky (Viktor Klimento) mocks Spore, calling him an "invalid who has lived too long."

Errik's eyesight is failing him and the well-placed Knut has provided him with a pair of spectacles that to the majority of people are a mysterious alien apparatus perched on his nose. Errik is ungrateful, blaming the spectacles for his worsening sight, theorising that his reliance on the glasses has debilitated him all the more; immediacy suppressing his warrior's natural desire to fight the condition and see the ailment in retreat. The glasses allow him to continue to see his crimes, perhaps even help fuel them, and the film opens on his 73rd murder in the name of his country. Semensky accuses Errik of fearing peacetime as he would then have no excuse for his acts of atrocity.

Accompanying the Spore brothers and Semensky are two more Russian officers, Captain Musko (Kari Ketonen), who initially feigns an ability to understand his opposite's language in order to avoid having to respond to Errik's provocations, and Ivan Rogosin (Rain Tolk), initially unfazed, but we later learn the extent of his services to his country when Semensky recalls that he was only ten years of age when he denounced his own mother, which led her to be the first witch to be burned in Vyborg Square.

Before leaving on their final mapping exercise, Knut oversees the swearing in of allegiance by peasants to the Swedish-Russian alliance. The oath promises their soul to the two countries, to the territories whose borders are being decided, and the team of five are under a like oath and literal threat to the land as they discover an accursed community at the dead centre of the swamp. They find themselves in territory they cannot control, where the compass is uncooperative, and the landscape struck sickly hue of cobalt blue and algae green, while the waters contain spectral hints of the cavalryman's victims.

The elders return a population count of 73, the number which tallies with the cavalryman's killing score. He tells his brother that he will not seek redemption over his deeds, that it is too late for him to find contrition, and that his only wish is to get his brother safely home. Strange occurrences befall the village, and there is a rectangular structure with a single door into darkness sitting in the middle of a pool of water with a sinister pull on certain members of the group.

The villagers are all elderly, but for a boy, who is not a boy at all but a lonely girl, the only child in the village, given to amusing herself by acting like a boy, becoming her male counterpart. Born as the people fled their original war-torn villages, the 73 settled in the village, and the girl had been baptised in the waters of the ominous sauna, possibly confirming the curse on the people. The village had been discovered, previously built by Russian monks, whose artefacts and history are collected in a single building, storage for mostly faceless iconography.

Their presence is the trigger for events that have been long held off even belaying the death of anybody in the village who instead grow older and rot in their hospital beds. The supernatural terror jumps into gear and they demand answers from one of the village elders. But instead they make the elder vulnerable to the lurking horrors and, rather than see or speak of them again, he stabs out his own eyes. Spore is desperate to make amends and, as the villagers are whisked away by the evil into the sauna, he aims to place the terrified girl safely outside of its monstrous reach. And he has already decided that he can do this only with an act of personal sacrifice in distracting the evil.

The medieval horror film remains an obscure backdrop, though there has been a recent rise in the subgenre, particular in Britain with Alberto Sciamma's Anazapta, and Chris Smith's The Black Death. This Swedish-Finnish production, while wearing its true horror sensibilities on its chest, in the prose dialogue, grubby detail and unhurried pace, also radiates a wider art house aura, with curtseys to Bergman and Tarkovsky. The art horror blend is a bubbling and bitter brew, if less than epic. Even when alfresco, the film is claustrophobic, but the results are small-scale, and the unassailable evil, though cogent and cloying, is not ultimately felt. This is partly because the viewer has difficulty placing themselves in the situation because, ironically, the characters, situation and era are often too well drawn; it is difficult becoming a participant in the adventure when there characters are too precisely not the viewer.

The film is also over before you know it. I repeat, I am grateful to filmmakers for increasingly bringing in their films under 90 minutes and not unnecessarily hanging around, but perhaps Evil Rising (aka: Sauna), could have benefited from another 10 minutes? It is in the attempts to disrupt expectation that it slyly undoes itself (similarly a fault in Psalm 21 from the same neck of the woods). Knut has been introduced in too much detail for his face to last be seen 60 minutes in. Knut is present but first his face is unseen, then his voice his lost; dwindling him next to a passing shadow, until completely ebbed out of the picture. The film is intrinsic in its details, eccentricities and imagination, and the production values, particularly the costume and soundtrack, are superb, but - having seen it twice now - as atmospheric as it is, that threat does not transfer itself outwardly to the viewer.

Evil Rising is a successful entertainment but curiously less than thrilling. If aiming to be a full-on horror, which one suspects it is, then it fails to unnerve. We are interested in the characters but do not care for them and, therefore, are not ultimately concerned by their fate. A pity, then, as this is a serious horror film which is not shy of intelligence or quality, but just misses out on actually being frightening.

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